Sunday, November 08, 2009


The Moon and You

Apologies to Leroy Shield, whose wonderful little song by that name you should know if’n you don’t. This, muchachos, constitutes a short intermission in the current observing program, The Herschel II Project. I got out to the PSAS darksite this past Saturday evening, mostly for a pre-Chiefland shake down of the scope, my dear old NexStar 11, Big Bertha, who, due to weather and other factors ain’t been out of her case since last July. I had high hopes, but the weather didn't exactly cooperate. After hauling Bertha out to Tanner-Williams, I had about two hours before the EVIL CLOUDS pushed in, but I did get a dozen Herschels, including everything in Cygnus. I still have to transcribe my notes on the objects I saw Saturday night, though, so that will be next week. What’s on my mind this Sunday morning? Hecate. Diana. Selene. Artemis. Luna. You know, the good old MOON.

I’m going from dim Herschel galaxies to the dadgummed Moon in one fell swoop? Yep. They don’t call me the original astro-dilettante for nothing, and the Moon has a lot to recommend her. I suppose this one might be better titled “The Moon and Me,” but that don’t have as nice a ring. Anyhoo, I hope the story of my ongoing love affair with my silv’ry lady may inspire you to discover her charms as well.

I suspect you, like most of us, spent some time touring the Lunar landscape when you were a novice, but I also suspect you probably haven’t done much Moon watching for a while. If not, you should. Our friendly neighborhood natural satellite has a lot to recommend her: she’s available for most of every month in some shape or fashion, she’s immune to light pollution, and she don’t require a big scope to show you a lot. You may even, like me, eventually decide that deep, deep, down it’s not really PGC lint balls you crave. That you are, like your Old Uncle Rod, a lunatic, and haven’t outgrown the Moon afterall.

I’ve always loved Luna. She never had quite the allure for me Mars did when I was a youngun, but almost. Certainly I was spellbound by Destination Moon when it played down to the Roxy in its third or fourth run. It’s a lot like Conquest of Space. (You did round up a copy of that and Angry Red Planet and watch ‘em didn’t ya?) Mostly unknown actors, but with a real name behind ‘em, Robert Heinlein, on whose novel the film is based and who served as technical advisor and who may even have done a short cameo in the film. I’ll have to run down a DVD of the movie, but I’ve been told it’s The Man Himself doing the countdown in the early minutes of the film. Oh, the Ames Brothers didn’t really go to the Moon with our valiant crew.

As Apollo came on apace, the Moon was ever more in the consciousness of those of us who lived through the 60s. Other than Destination, what caught my attention was Men into Space, a short-lived series CBS ran, believe it or not, in primetime beginning in 1959. I probably saw it for the first time when they reran it on Saturday mornings in the early 1960s. Mama was not apt to let this little feller stay up much past 8, even to watch something I pleaded was EDUCATIONAL. I’ve never seen the show again (I'll have to look for it on Youtube), but I recall its episodes, which took us from a Moon landing to building a Lunar base, seemed awfully realistic. And maybe they were. The USAF Ballistic Missile Office helped out with the show, and many of the ship designs and much of the artwork were by Chesley Bonestell.

There were plenty of Moon books too. Starting with Heinlein, whose The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) became a big favorite of mine in the Palomar Junior days. Before Heinlein—and after—though, there was Patrick Moore. The world’s most famous living amateur astronomer, as those of you who, like me, hang on his every word know has always been a huge Lunatic. As he’ll tell you, the Moon is his passion, and she’s been prominent in most of his many books. I know I eagerly devoured 1953’s A Guide to the Moon when I ran across it in Kate Shepard Elementary’s library. How it got there, I haven’t a clue. I am pretty sure Mama, who was the school’s librarian, didn’t order it, as she was more interested in getting the word out about Little House on the Prairie at the time.

So, yeah, I did a lot of Moon watching till the end of the sixties. She was the one thing that lived up to my expectations in my puny Pal Junior and my even punier Tasco 3-inch Newtonian. As a matter of fact, until I was finally diverted by the deep sky, I looked at the Moon more than anything else. Beginning with my first telescope. I don’t mean my Tasco 3-inch, but the first scope I ever looked at anything in the sky with, the cobbled together 6-inch below.

Unk's brother liked posing for the camera, but not telescopes
This Thing was ATMed by a pal of The Old Man’s. I can’t quite remember if it was a ham buddy or a fellow engineer at the TV station where he worked, but I suspect the latter, since the telescope sported a “mount” made out of a cast off piece of a microphone boom. The mirror was a long focal length sphere (I’d guess in retrospect), an f/10 at least, maybe as much as f/12. It had not only been ground and polished by the OM’s bud, but had been silvered at home, and by the time my brother posed with it, shortly after it came to our house to stay, the primary was badly tarnished. By the way, the bro, who in the picture seems kinda engaged by the scope, never deigned to look through it as far as I remember. Go figger.

Despite the tarnish, the old scope with its single home-brew 30-mm (or so) eyepiece was quite capable of delivering a good image of the Moon. It looked just plain wonderful to naïve little me—when I finally got Luna in the field. Even back in the dark ages, we suffered the New Telescope Curse, even if that scope was a crude thing with a riveted together stovepipe for a tube, a plumbing parts focuser, and a screen door spring for a “slow motion control.” ‘Course, to me it wasn’t humble at all; it was on the almost-scary side of wonderful, and as soon as the skies cleared I was out to have a look at a near-full Moon hanging in the east. Thank god the mic boom stand still had its wheels; otherwise I’d never have been able to move the hulking scope from carport to driveway.

The first hurdle was getting at the eyepiece. I’m older than my brother, but still I needed that chair you see him perched on to position myself comfortably. Next difficulty was putting the Moon in the eyepiece. I’d never even touched a Real Telescope before, and I hadn’t imagined that would be a problem—you pointed the thing at the Moon and there it was, right? Ha! Since there was no finder, it took much repeated sighting along the tube accompanied by continual hopping on and off Mama’s castoff dinette set chair before I succeeded in getting the Moon in view.

When I finally did, though, MAN OH MAN. Once I figured out you could push the eyepiece in or pull it out to get a sharp image, anyway. At the scope’s long focal length, I couldn’t see all the Moon at once, but what I could see was flat out crazy. Yeah, I know, we tell the novices, “Don’t look at the Full Moon, there’s hardly any detail to see at a high Sun angle,” but I was seeing tons of detail. Seas, rays, rings that I suspected might even be the legendary CRATERS. I was just about speechless at the sight. And so were the nextdoor neighbor kids when they wandered by. Almost speechless. I remember the youngest of ‘em took one look and started bawling. We determined that it was his firm belief that Santa Claus lived on the Moon, and that our scoping out his digs might impel the fat man to pass us by come December the 25th. Then as now, I’ve been known to observe with some strange folks.

I don’t remember using the 6-inch much after that magical first light; it was too much of a pain to point at anything, and shortly after that first look at the Moon I took possession of my Tasco, which, if not as good optically, was one hell of a lot easier to aim. Once I had a scope that was really mine, I undertook a Survey of the Moon. Following Sir Patrick’s advice, I began to draw craters with abandon. How good were the sketches I did with the Tasco and with the Palomar Junior that followed her? I wish I knew. Sometime over the last 45 years, the earliest of my observing logs (mostly on steno pads) were lost—it’s tempting to blame the ex, but I really don’t know what went with them. I do remember how hard I tried to GET IT RIGHT when I was sketching, and you can only imagine how much I’d give to have one of those little notebooks again.

That was not the Whole Big Thing for me when it came to the Moon, though; that was MOON PICTURES. As I’ve recounted before, likely ad nauseum, almost as soon as I got my hands on the Tasco, I began trying to take astrophotos of the Moon with it. First with my silly little Argus box camera, and then, with the OM's help, with his marvelous Exacta. As I’ve said before, these pictures (that's one at the top), though not very good as we judge such things today, amazed my friends—and frankly anyone else who saw ‘em—in those simpler times. Even four decades later, I can’t help feeling a little pride in what I accomplished when I look at the few surviving prints. I believe I even took a top spot in a Junior High Science Fair with a project built around my Moon Pictures.

That was the high point for my Lunar imaging career for a while, though. By the beginning of the 1970s I had a good homebrew six inch (I thought so, anyhow) and the wheels to get me to darker observing locations. Naturally, my focus shifted to the Messier and the NGC beyond. Much as I hate to admit it, I also gotta say that by the end of Apollo I was, like most of the U.S. population, at least a little ODed on the Moon. The result was I didn’t do much more than take casual glances at Luna for 15 years.

I didn’t get back to Diana till I was forced to. When I moved back to Possum Swamp, I found myself suddenly bathed in light pollution. Real bad light pollution. I eventually learned to deal with that and continue to observe the deep sky, but while I was finding my way vis-à-vis urban observing, I just looked at the Moon. A lot. Not just when it was in its all-too-familiar before-first-quarter phases, either, but the less observed time after Full Moon. I could hardly believe the cool stuff I was seeing under differing lighting conditions as the terminator marched back across Hecate’s face. Even when I turned back to the Great Out There, I continued to look at the Moon, as I still do even now. Those months of intensive Moon watching showed me why I’d been so fascinated as a youngun—in spades.

I didn’t leave it at looking, either. My reintroduction to the joys of Lunar observing coincided with my renewed interest in astrophotography. I got me a copy of Michael Covington’s Astrophotography for the Amateur, and set out to learn that frustrating art all over again, maybe the right way this time, beginning with the Moon. My new Moon Pictures weren’t done much differently from the old ones. I set up my 8-inch f/7 Coulter Dobsonian in the front yard of Mama’s house and snapped away in afocal fashion at the total Lunar eclipse of November 1993. I don’t know if it was the bigger scope that helped, but my images and the ones that followed were at least a little better than those from the old days. My technique was the same simple one: I placed my camera, an elderly Petri SLR, on a tripod next to the scope, pointed the lens into a long focal length eyepiece and snapped away.

Over the next few years, I refined my technique, shooting prime focus and eyepiece projection with cameras mounted on the rear cell of my C8. I was particularly pleased with my nice orange-red pics from the eclipse of September of ’96. I still longed for the one thing that had always eluded me, though: close up, detailed shots of craters. When I was a sprout, I thought I could do that by shooting a wide-angle picture of the terminator and blowing up the craters with the enlarger in the darkroom. That yielded a Moon that resembled slightly lumpy mashed potatoes, as did my attempts at eyepiece projection imaging. Those I got with the C8 in the 1990s were better, but not that much better. Taking high magnification images of the Moon was not easy. Even fast films required relatively long exposures; the inevitable gust of wind or the bang of the SLR’s mirror-return ruined most of my shots.

I found the answer one afternoon when I was reviewing some vacation video tapes Dorothy and I took on our visit to the Pisgah Inn and began idly wondering if I could videotape the Moon with the 8mm camcorder. Shortly, I was in the backyard with my 12.5-inch Meade StarFinder Dob doing just that. The results were crazy good compared to the best closeups I’d been able to get with 35mm film. After a little experimenting, I got a video sequence of Copernicus that filled the screen and revealed a huge amount of detail—relatively speaking.

Which was cool to look at on TV, but how could I get stills? I happened to meet a guy at a local star party, Charles Genovese, who had the answer. He was doing some amazing video work on the Solar System in the mid 1990s. It doesn’t look like any of his web pages are still on the air, but he was a true video astronomy pioneer whose results were just killer. Hell, he had a video that actually showed the rille down the Alpine Valley, plain as day.

For stills, he advised me to look into a little gadget called a “Snappy.” This was, he said, a frame grabber that plugged into your PC’s parallel port (bet you sprouts don’t know what that is) and which, he said, could produce amazingly good still images from video. Before long I was making Moon Pictures that, if not as good as Charles’ were, were still derned good. My video image of a Moon-Saturn occultation actually won an imaging contest. I won an astrophoto competition. Me.

From there it was video all the way for the Solar System for a while. Under the guidance of another video astronomy wizard, Jim Ferreira, me and and bunch of like-minded folks who were calling ourselves “astrovideographers” started a mailing list and began pushing back the frontiers of what amateur astronomers could image of the solar system. The Video-Astro story is one for another time, but one of the things we discovered as a group was the PC23C surveillance video camera. One of these sensitive little black and white imagers mounted on a C8 could deliver Lunar images way better than even what the camcorder could do. Especially when you processed and stacked many frames with a new program called Astrostack.

We were justly proud of our video efforts, and the Videoastro list continues to this day, but there is no denyin’ our efforts were eclipsed by those of a group pushing a different sort of imager, the webcams people had begun using for video conferencing with computers (and, less, uh, “business-oriented” online activities). I used a modified webcam, a SAC 7B, to finally capture that stinking rille down the Alpine Valley. It was clear as day, just like Dr. Genovese’s had been—well, if’n you held your mouth just right.

Being able to get this level of detail sure did kick my Luna Love up another notch. I was finally able to wander the Moon’s surface and take-in all the amazing sights I’d previously seen only in my mind’s eye with the aid or Mssrs. Heinlein and Clarke. Us webcamming Lunatics were so overjoyed with our results that in the early 2000s a bunch of us grouped together on Yahoo (natch) with the intention of producing a “Webcam Lunar Atlas.” That never quite got off the ground, but we had a lot of fun with it for a while. Unfortunately, my writing career was finally going somewhere, and I reluctantly dropped out of that worthy project.

I didn’t drop out of Moon watching, though. Not hardly. My re-infatuation with Selene impelled me to rejoin the ALPO and begin paying the rest of the Sun’s family the attention they so richly deserve. Mostly, though, I stuck with Luna. There was a lot of excitin’ stuff a-goin’ on. The webcam revolution was accompanied by a general renaissance in amateur interest in the Moon, and with that, new Moon books. Sir Patrick came out with Patrick Moore on the Moon, which, even more than his others, communicated the man’s enduring love of Luna. There were plenty more good books too, but it wasn’t just books where the Silvery Goddess was making her influence felt again. Sky and Telescope, for example, started a new Moon column done by Lunar guru Chuck Wood. If my understanding of the Moon has improved lately, it is largely thanks to him.

One thing I did wonder, though, “When will there be a Megastar for Moon watchers?” If you don’t know, Megastar was the first really deep deep sky charting program for PCs. Me and my fellow Lunatics dreamed of something that would do the same for us. We had to wait a while, but eventually someone listened, that someone being Patrick Chevalley of Cartes du Ciel fame. What he and Christian Legrand did was give us a program to take us very, very “deep” on the Moon.

In addition to a highly detailed high resolution zoomable map of Luna, the Pro edition of their Virtual Moon Atlas includes access to things I’d only dreamed of in the 1960s, like images from the renowned and apparently rare (I never saw a print copy) Consolidated Lunar Atlas. Hell, VMA will even send your go-to scope to craters and other Lunar features. If that ain’t finer than split frog hair, I don’t know what is. Wait, I do know what is: IT’S FREE. Yep, just like Cartes du Ciel, Virtual Moon Atlas is a labor of love and a gift to the amateur astronomy community. Do yourself a favor: go to the website and download it. While you are at it, send the boys an email THANK YOU.

With the maturing of the gosh-darned Internet, things have just got better and better for Lunatics. VMA is great, but there is lots more. Things that, like the Consolidated Lunar Atlas, I’d only fantasized about using. A quick Google will turn up not just the whole Consolidated Lunar Atlas, but The Lunar Orbiter Photographic Atlas of the Moon, and The Lunar Aeronautical Charts (a fave of mine). And that’s still only the barest tip of the central peak. Do you like the Astronomy Picture of the Day? Well, hell, you oughta love The Lunar Photo of the Day by the aforementioned Mr. Chuck Wood. I could keep goin’; it’s just a wonderful time to be a Moon watcher, and I’m constantly amazed more of my fellow amateurs ain’t. Yep, in my opinion Lunar observing is undergoing a huge resurgence, but there are still plenty of our brothers and sisters who don’t realize it’s more fun to look at the Moon than at the boob tube on those nights off from galaxy chasin’.

My current Lunar program? Oh, it’s modest folks, very modest. I’m embarrassed to admit I can’t recall the last time I took a Moon Picture. And it’s been a lot longer since I’ve done a drawing of her wonders. I can’t even remember the last time I pointed a C8 at her, much less the C11 or a larger scope. But that don’t mean I’ve deserted my first love. She still is that, inconstant as I’ve sometimes been. Yeah, Lunar observing right now consists of hopping outside with the StarBlast and giving the current phase a half hour once over once in a while. But still I admire—nay, worship—her serene and inscrutable countenance, and, like her timeless tides, my full attention to her beauty will come again.

What’s going down at the ol’ Manse this week? In support of my Herschel Crusade, I’ve put together a list in SkyTools 3 format of all the Herschels. Over two thousand DSOs, that is. You can download that at the SkyTools Yahoogroup and it will likely be up on the SkyTools website for download from inside the program afore long. Who do we have to thank for Unk’s current HERSCHEL MADNESS? It wasn't just obsereving those Herschel IIs at the DSRSG.

The wonderful Miss Dorothy came home one afternoon bearing a GREAT BIG (and old) book, The Scientific Papers of Sir William Herschel she bought for me at a rare/antiquarian book sale. Ever since I began to read Sir Willie’s story in detail, I’ve had a growing yen to follow in his and Caroline’s footsteps.

As intimated up top, next week Unk pulls up stakes and heads for the storied Chiefland Star Party. It will be HERSCHELS, HERSCHELS, HERSCHELS when I get there. If the skies are good we’ll see how many aitches the NexStar 11 and Stellacam 2 can bring back. As for this evening, Friday as I hunt and peck this out, it’s Greekfest time. Much food and desert will be involved and undoubtedly many adult beverages as well. Good thing it’s in walking distance, only a couple of blocks away. If’n I ignore the condition of my skies, I start thinking there really is something to this Urban Lifestyle.

Duh, I did not know the Virtual Moon Atlas can drive a goto telescope....
Found it. I will give it a try the next time I have my Meade LX250 Frankenscope out.
In case you get a desire to reminisce about Men Into Space:

- Jack
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